Prometheus Viral Clip #3 - David is a good clip of a fictional character in a science-fiction movie that helps frame my question; but I am interested in the general question, not the specifics of this movie.

An robot named David claims to "understand human emotions, although [he] does not feel them [himself]."

I personally feel as though his claim is false - I would argue that to be able to state an understanding of human emotions, one must [have the capacity to?] feel them oneself. Is there existing knowledge or papers on this matter?

When asked what makes David sad, he responds with things like war and poverty. When asked if David would like to supply any additional statements before ending the feed, he expresses "gratitude" explicitly. If one "is" sad, isn't one by definition, "feeling" sadness?

Related questions

Are there emotions that only some people can feel?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ This thing is know as Mary's room, when talking about senses (not feelings); but the problems are largely equivalent. $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2012 at 17:01

1 Answer 1


There are two ways to approach your question: with or without dualism. I will highlight the dualist approach since it is more salient. Keep in mind that I do not find this approach reasonable, and doubt my summary will do it justice.

You might be interested in the concept of philosophical zombie, it is a modal argument against physicalism in the spirit of Saul Kripke that was polished by David Chalmers in The Conscious Mind. The basic idea is that you can have a zombie which is behaviorally equivalent to a human (including making utterances like "Ouch, I feel pain") yet it does not actually experience those emotions. There is nothing that if "feels like" to be a zombie. A zombie can say "I feel sad" and act like it is sad, but it doesn't feel anything.

If you adopt this stance it often becomes impossible to make a good theory-of-mind since everyone except yourself could actually be a zombie. In fact, Chalmers takes this further by talking about a whole parallel Z-universe where all creatures are zombies (including a copy Chalmers that goes around talking about a parallel universe). From this perspective, David's statement can be perfectly valid.

A second approach is looking at this point from the polar opposite perspective: behaviorism. Here, "to understand human emotion" would mean to be able to make predictions of human behavior based on knowledge that the human asserts to be in a certain emotional state. To "feel human emotion" would not be as well defined, but would be roughly equivalent to make the same patterns of behavior as a human that asserts to feel a certain emotion would usually make.

It is easy to see how David's statement can be perfectly valid from this perspective: if David simple stood in the corner and wrote down predictions of what the humans around him would do, then a behaviorist would say that David "understands human emotion". However, since standing in a corner and making predictions while your crew is eaten by aliens is not a typical human response, the behaviorist could conclude that David does not "feel human emotion" (if the behaviorist was tricked into using the word 'feel').

What I provided are two extreme philosophical stances, and each individual lays somewhere in between the two in terms of their personal philosophy on this issue (and maybe some lay on other extremes I did not imagine). Unfortunately, a scientific answer will come down to definitions and semantics. It will depend on what definition of 'feeling' the scientists in question find more reasonable.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.